Copper thieves will not let up

Thieves cut the power and carted off a 2-year-old heat pump from this unoccupied rental house in the Tabby Creek neighborhood of Summerville.

While a year-old South Carolina law to curb copper thefts has helped ward off some thieves, many others still are lurking behind homes and businesses stealing air-conditioning units and anything else that contains the metal.

Jeane Whitfield is among those who have been plundered by the thieves. She said she has had enough after her handyman found two air-conditioning units had been stolen last week from two Sangaree homes she owns and rents out.

“I’m out $5,000 for the units,” she said.

State officials thought they had found a solution to the problem last year when they passed a law requiring anyone buying or selling copper to obtain a permit from their local sheriff’s offices.

Thousands of permits have been issued, but thieves are still going to great lengths to steal copper, which could fetch them $2 a pound or more at local scrap yards.

One man was nearly electrocuted last year trying to harvest copper from an electrical substation in Berkeley County. Electrical co-ops alone are out nearly $1 million because of copper thefts since 2011, according to officials with the state co-ops.

The new law was put into place Aug. 17, 2011. Since then, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has issued 9,187 two-year permits and an additional 1,076 48-hour permits.

Despite that, Maj. Jim Brady said the number of thefts has remained relatively the same.

“The problem with this whole situation obviously is when you get metal, you can’t always link it back to a specific crime to say this came from that air conditioner or from another one,” Brady said. “When the stuff is sold, it’s sold as scrap metal.”

In Berkeley County, where Whitfield’s properties were hit, sheriff’s officials have seen a decline in the number of thefts since the law was put into place. North Charleston police also reported a drop in reports.

But the thefts remain a persistent problem, officials said.

It’s not only air-conditioning units being stolen, according to authorities. It’s anything thieves can get their hands on with copper in it, Brady said.

They’re even stealing car and tractor batteries out of machines because they contain copper, Berkeley County sheriff’s spokesman Dan Moon said. And they are more than willing to take risks.

In August 2011, a man was flown to the burn center in Augusta with second- and third-degree burns after Berkeley County sheriff’s investigators said he tried to steal copper from a Berkeley Electric substation on College Park Road. He shocked himself with 7,000 volts and knocked out power to a neighborhood, authorities said.

Since that incident, the utility has seen fewer copper thefts in its area, which covers 85,000 customers in the tri-county area, said Micah Ponce, spokesman for Berkeley Electric. “Right now we haven’t had an issue at a substation,” Ponce said. “We’re now averaging two incidents a year.”

Other electric companies around the state aren’t seeing it let up. Near the North Carolina state line, Marlboro County is still feeling the brunt of it, with thieves stripping copper from substations. Spokesman John Powers said they believe thieves are crossing the state line to sell the metal.

“I’ve also noticed it varies with the cost of copper. When the cost rises, then we see more activity,” Powers said.

The state’s electric cooperatives have experienced such a loss due to copper thefts that they announced a partnership with Crime Stoppers in September. Billboards and public service announcements on radio are encouraging people to anonymously report copper thefts to law enforcement.

Whitfield, the property owner, said the law isn’t enough, and she feels more needs to be done. Whitfield hopes neighbors pay more attention and report suspicious activity because no one is immune.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to them,” said Whitfield, who also had a unit stolen from another property last year.

Her company, Whitfield Properties, owns several properties in the area, and she has taken several steps to protect them after last week’s thefts. She had her handyman install motion sensors, flood lights, cameras and locks, and air-conditioning units have been bolted to the houses.

The thefts aren’t just costly, they are bad for business, Whitfield said. It hurts her ability to sell or rent those homes, especially when real estate agents catch wind of the thefts.

“With this economy, these houses are Kryptonite,” she said. “It makes my product look inferior. I’m tired of it.”

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.